Walt Disney (1901 – 1966) was a film producer, media magnate and co-founder of the Walt Disney Company. He was an iconic figure in the Twentieth Century media and entertainment industry, helping to produce many films. With his staff, he created famous cartoon characters, such as Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck; his name was also used for the successful Disney Theme Parks. During his lifetime, he received a record 59 Nominations for the Academy Awards, winning 22 Awards.
Early Life – Walt Disney
Walt Disney was born on 5 December 1901, in Chicago. His parents were of German/English and Irish descent. As a child, the Disney family moved between Marceline in Missouri, Kansas City and back to Chicago. The young Walt Disney developed an interest in art and took lessons at the Kansas City Institute and later Chicago Art Institute. He became the cartoonist for the school magazine.
When America joined the First World War, Walt dropped out of school and tried to enlist in the army. He was rejected for being underage, but he was later able to join in the Red Cross and in late 1918 was sent to France to drive an ambulance.
In 1919, he moved back to Kansas City where he got a series of jobs, before finding employment in his area of greatest interest – the film industry. It was working for the Kansas City Film Ad company that he gained the opportunity to begin working in the relatively new field of animation. Walt used his talent as a cartoonist to start his first work.
The success of his early cartoons enabled him to set up his own studio called Laugh-O-Gram. However, the popularity of his cartoons was not matched by his ability to run a profitable business. With high labour costs, the firm went bankrupt. After his first failure, he decided to move to Hollywood, California which was home to the growing film industry in America. This ability to overcome adversity was a standard feature of Disney’s career.
“All the adversity I’ve had in my life, all my troubles and obstacles, have strengthened me… You may not realize it when it happens, but a kick in the teeth may be the best thing in the world for you.”
– The Story of Walt Disney (1957)
With his brother, Roy, Walt set up another company and sought to find a distributor for his new film – Alice Comedies – based on the adventures of Alice in Wonderland.
In 1927, the Disney studio was involved in the successful production of ‘Oswald the Lucky Rabbit’, distributed by Universal Pictures. However, with Universal Pictures controlling the rights to ‘Oswald the Lucky Rabbit’, Walt was not able to profit from this success. He rejected an offer from Universal and went back to working on his own.
It was at this point that he created the character – Mickey Mouse (originally called Mortimer Mouse). Ub Iwerks drew Mickey Mouse, and Walt gave a voice to the character.
The Mickey Mouse cartoons with soundtracks became very popular and cemented the growing reputation and strength of Disney Productions. The skill of Walt Disney was to give his cartoons believable real-life characteristics. They were skillfully depicted and captured the imagination of the audience through his pioneering use of uplifting stories and moral characteristics.
In 1932, he received his first Academy Award for the Best Short Subject: Cartoons for the three coloured ‘Flowers and Trees’ He also won a special Academy Award for Mickey Mouse.
In 1933, he developed his most successful cartoon of all time ‘The Three Little Pigs’ (1933) with the famous song ‘Whose Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf.”
In 1924, Walt Disney began his most ambitious project to date. He wished to make a full length animated feature film of ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.’ Many expected it to be a commercial failure. But, using new techniques of filming, the production was met with glowing reviews. It took nearly three years to film – coming out in 1937 after Disney had run out of money. But, the movie’s strong critical reception, made it the most successful film of 1938, earning $8 million on its first release. The film had very high production values but also captured the essence of a fairy tale on film for the first time. Walt Disney would later write that he never produced films for the critic, but the general public. Replying to criticism that his productions were somewhat corny, he replied:
“All right. I’m corny. But I think there’s just about a-hundred-and-forty-million people in this country that are just as corny as I am.” – Walt Disney
Disney always had a great ability to know what the public loved to see.
After the success of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the studio produced several other successful animations, such as ‘Pinocchio’, ‘Peter Pan’, ‘Bambi’ and ‘The Wind in the Willows’. After America’s entry into the Second World War in 1941, this ‘golden age’ of animation faded and the studio struggled as it made unprofitable propaganda films.
Political and religious views
In 1941, Disney also had to deal with a major strike by his writers and animators. This strike left a strong impression on Disney. He would later become a leading member of the anti-Communist organisation ‘Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals’ (the right-wing organisation was also considered to be anti-semitic.) At one point, he (unsuccessfully) tried to brand his labour union organisers as Communist agitators.
However, in the 1950s, Disney distanced himself from the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals. However, by associating with the organisation, he was often associated with the anti-labour and anti-semitic philosophy it expressed. Disney was a Republican, though was not particularly involved in politics. It is often asked whether Walt Disney was anti-semitic.
His biographer, Neal Gabler stated:
“…And though Walt himself, in my estimation, was not anti-semitic, nevertheless, he willingly allied himself with people who were anti-semitic, and that reputation stuck. He was never really able to expunge it throughout his life.”
Walt Disney believed in the benefits of a religious approach to life, though he never went to church and disliked sanctimonious teachers.
“I believe firmly in the efficacy of religion, in its powerful influence on a person’s whole life. It helps immeasurably to meet the storms and stress of life and keep you attuned to the Divine inspiration. Without inspiration, we would perish.”
Ch. 15: Walt Lives!, p. 379
He respected other religions and retained a firm faith in God.
During the war, there was much less demand for cartoon animation. It took until the late 1940s, for Disney to recover some of its lustre and success. Disney finished production of Cinderella and also Peter Pan (which had been shelved during the war) In the 1950s, Walt Disney Productions also began expanding its operations into popular action films. They produced several successful films, such as ‘Treasure Island’ (1950), ‘20,000 Leagues Under the Sea’ (1954) and ‘Pollyanna’ (1960)
In another innovation, the studio created one of the first specifically children’s shows – The Mickey Mouse Club. Walt Disney even returned to the studio to provide the voice. In the 1960s, the Disney Empire continued to successfully expand. In 1964, they produced their most successful ever film ‘Mary Poppins.’
In the late 1940s, Walt Disney began building up plans for a massive Theme Park. Walt Disney wished the Theme Park to be like nothing ever created on earth. In particular, he wanted it to be a magical world for children and surrounded by a train. Disney had a great love of trains since his childhood when he regularly saw trains pass near his home. It was characteristic of Walt Disney that he was willing to take risks in trying something new.
“Courage is the main quality of leadership, in my opinion, no matter where it is exercised. Usually, it implies some risk, especially in new undertakings. Courage to initiate something and to keep it going, pioneering and adventurous spirit to blaze new ways, often, in our land of opportunity.”
– The Disney Way Fieldbook (2000) by Bill Capodagli
After several years in the planning and building, Disneyland opened on July 17, 1955. Disney spoke at the address.
“To all who come to this happy place; welcome. Disneyland is your land. Here age relives fond memories of the past …. and here youth may savor the challenge and promise of the future. Disneyland is dedicated to the ideals, the dreams and the hard facts that have created America … with the hope that it will be a source of joy and inspiration to all the world.”
The success of Disneyland encouraged Walt to consider another park in Orlando, Florida. In 1965, another theme park was planned.
Walt Disney died of lung cancer on December 15, 1966. He had been a chain smoker all his life. An internet myth suggested Walt Disney had his body cryonically frozen, but this is untrue. It seems to have been spread by his employers, looking for one last joke at the expense of their boss.
After his death, his brother Roy returned to lead The Disney Company, but the company missed the direction and genius of Walt Disney. The 1970s were a relatively fallow period for the company, before a renaissance in the 1980s, with a new generation of films, such as ‘Who Framed Roger Rabbit’ (1988) and ‘The Lion King’ (1994)
Citation: Pettinger, Tejvan. “Biography of Walt Disney”, Oxford, UK. www.biographyonline.net, 8th August 2014. Last updated 1st March 2019.
Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination
Famous Americans – Great Americans from the Founding Fathers to modern civil rights activists. Including presidents, authors, musicians, entrepreneurs and businesspeople.
Famous Film Directors – Influential film directors, including Alfred Hitchcock, Charlie Chaplin, Frank Capra, Walt Disney and Orson Wells.